May 25, 2012

Men In Black 3 (05/25/2012)

Lettergrade: C+

I recently caught part of the first Men In Black on cable and was surprised that the film holds up surprisingly well after all these years. I think part of the reason I originally liked it in 1997 was that it's essentially a straight ahead (albeit relatively thin) cops-and-criminals story with the added element of amusing space aliens hiding between the cracks of the world we know. Since all the original MIB agents were recruited in the 60s, they were all growing old and needed some new blood in the mix to keep the organization going... thus the recruitment of Will Smith's character, allowing the film to run a few plays from the "fish out of water" stylebook and to work in frequent smart-assed asides ala Bill Murray in Ghostbusters.

Mid-way through Men In Black 3, I realized that the reason neither of the Men In Black sequels have done much for me is because these are characters and situations that were never really designed to last much longer than that original film's 90 minute runtime. Since the first one was so successful, it was a no brainer that more movies would follow, but the closer look you get at the whole Men In Black world, the less interesting the whole thing is. Particularly once Will Smith is a well adjusted MIB agent, the value of having him in the part at all is greatly reduced.

This new one isn't nearly as aggressively shitty as 2002's Men In Black II, but whereas the first picture felt like a throwback to the big and cinematic Amblin pictures of the 80s, both sequels have felt a little more like TV movies in terms of scale and the quality of the writing.

The picture started shooting in November of 2010 with only part of the script "locked" in order to take advantage of some New York state tax breaks that were set to expire at the end of the year. The movie then shut down for many months in 2011 while Will Smith, director Barry Sonnenfeld, and producer Walter Parkes argued about what the rest of the movie should be. As many as six major screenwriters came and went - although only one, Tropic Thunder's Etan Cohen, ultimately received credit - and at one point Sony reportedly considered scrapping the movie altogether and eating the costs.

The resulting movie, in which Smith's Agent J follows an alien prison escapee back through time to prevent him from assassinating the younger version of partner Tommy Lee Jones, now played by a wildly entertaining Josh Brolin, doesn't feel as criminally slapped together as the above would imply. The picture is quite good whenever Brolin is on screen doing his best Jones impression, and it's surprisingly great whenever A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlbarg, playing a new alien who is able to see all possible futures at once, has a scene. Flight Of The Conchords' Jemaine Clement is unrecognizable therefore feels a bit wasted as the movie's big bad, and although the movie is amusing, it's rare that it gets the big laughs of the original or even conveys a similar sense of wonder or imagination.

Ultimately, I'm not sure that Men In Black 3 is a movie that has a good reason for existing (other than profits for Sony Pictures, of course), but as far as cash-grab sequels go, you could do a lot worse.

More thoughts about the franchise... In 1997, the comparisons were mainly to 1984's Ghostbusters and that's not far off, up to and including how terrible the eventual "part 2"s were for each (both of which happened to be made exactly five years after the first).

At the time, I remember people commenting that the film's 90 some minute running time was almost too short, a rare complaint for a movie these days. Now that I'm a little older, it's clear to me that they ended the movie just before things started to get stupid. Or to put it another way, one of my favorite movies as a teenager was Sam Raimi's third entry in the Evil Dead series, Army Of Darkness. The American edit of the film is around 78 minutes or so, I think, while the version that played in Europe is more like 94, containing many deleted scenes and extended sequences. Being a fan, I sought the longer version out when it finally hit the States, and was very surprised by how much less I liked it. The film at 79 minutes is taught, clever, and hilarious. At 94, it's bloated, flabby and borderline unwatchable.

There's something to be said for understanding what your A material is, and then getting the hell out of the way before people get bored. The original Men In Black understood this… II and to a lesser degree part 3 do not.

Check out this Hollywood Reporter article on how MIB3 started shooting without a script.

May 5, 2012

The Avengers (05/05/2012)

Lettergrade: B

I haven't had much time to go to movies since our son was born in February, but to honest with you, there haven't been many of them all spring that I've really wanted to see anyway. I've known for a while, however, that the fast would likely be broken by The Avengers - Marvel's somewhat unprecedented superhero circle jerk movie which brings together Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor (among others) into one movie that the other movies have been semi-meticulously setting up for a couple years now.

The cool thing is that they got most of the lead actors who appeared in the earlier movies to reprise their roles in this one (minus Edward Norton, who played The Incredible Hulk in 2008, but was replaced by Marvel as this film ramped up amid allegations that he's an Incredible Asshole to work with). In addition, the movie features Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson and Clark Gregg (who each appeared in some of the earlier Marvel movies) and Samuel L. Jackson, who appeared in them all.

I was surprised by what a talky movie this is, but that's not entirely unexpected, I suppose, as writer/director Joss Whedon (of Buffy The Vampire Slayer fame) was hired to make it. I'm not a comic book reader, but as a movie goer, I found how he brought the characters together to be really satisfying and a hell of a lot of fun. I love crossover stuff. I always have. I loved it whenever the girls from The Facts Of Life would visit Arnold and Willis on Dif'frent Strokes. I just about lost my shit when Cliff and Norm from Cheers had a layover in the Wings airport, and I flocked to see both Alien Vs. Predator movies, despite the fact that of the earlier six movies in which the Alien or the Predator appeared, I really only like the first Predator and think the others in both franchises are pretty terrible.

Nevertheless, as The Avengers begins, the Cosmic Cube, which played a major role in 2011's Captain America, opens up and allows Loki, the half space God / Frost Giant villain who was lost in another dimension at the end of Thor (also from 2011) to come to Earth. Apparently, he fell in with a bad crowd of inter-dimensional space aliens while lost in space-time (as one would), and made a deal wherein he'll get them to Earth in exchange for a bunch of power or freedom or something.

Jackson's Nick Fury showed up in the other Marvel movies (usually around the end credits) to try to recruit each superhero to work on a special project for S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-Enforcement Division or Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, depending on which entry you believe on Wikipedia). The "Avengers Initiative" was pitched as a contingency plan in case the world ever fell into some serious shit, and when Loki shows up at the beginning of the flick, it's clear that the time has come to put it in motion.

I think Whedon understood that the pleasure of the film would be found in seeing these big superhero personalities and egos bump up against each other, and for the film's first 90 minutes or so, he delivers many highly entertaining segments wherein that exact thing happens. The film's third act devolves into a fairly standard orgy of computer generated violence which left me a little cold, despite the fact that Whedon was able to punctuate the sequence with individual character moments that gave the action a bit more personality than the norm.

The spectacle of the whole package is worth whatever trouble it may take to see, however, and the fact that the picture started to sag and drag a bit toward the end didn't actually bother me much in the grand scheme of things.  When I think about it, though, all the Marvel movies sure do seem to have kind of lackluster action climaxes...

I should make clear, i guess, that when I say "Marvel movie", I mean the movies that Marvel has produced directly... not the Marvel characters who had been licensed by various studios and have been overseen by big-gun producers and directors: Fox's ongoing X-Men movies... Sony's Spider-Man flicks and the upcoming reboot, Ang Lee's Hulk (which I rather liked), Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, the one where Ben Affleck plays the blind lawyer who is kind of like Batman, and a number of others that I'm too lazy to look up or remember.

No, I'm talking about the ones that Marvel has been funding and controlling themselves, starting with 2008's Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, continuing with 2010's terrible Iron Man 2, 2011's Captain America and Thor, and now The Avengers. The directors they've hired for each of these movies have been interesting... They're usually guys who aren't known for summer blockbusters, which has been good for the engaging character aspects of the films, but bad for the action sequences and spectacle stuff... which in each case has tended to feel a little haphazard and chaotic.

The lone exception has been Captain America's Joe Johnston, an experienced hand who had previously made The Rocketeer, Jumanji and Jurassic Park III among others. A former concept artist on early Steven Spielberg and George Lucas pictures, Johnson is easily the most visual of the Marvel directors, but even so, Captain suffered from the same sort of anemic action and a similar exhaustive more-is-more climax as the other Marvel endeavors have - a consistent trait which I think says more about Marvel's management of these pictures than about the individual artists involved.

For their next Thor, they've hired TV director Alan Taylor, and for the next Captain America, they've gotten Anthony and Joe Russo, who were the directing producers on the first three seasons of NBC's Community and Arrested Development, among other shows. All these guys will likely bring a lot of visual flair to the table, but I'm worried that in hiring relatively inexperienced first-time feature directors for their big summer tent poles, Marvel is more concerned with finding inexpensive directors they can push around than they are with doing what might result in the best possible movie.

I really liked The Avengers when I saw it, but sitting here now, the details are hazy and the specific scenes and themes that have stuck with me are kinda sparse.  I still walked away with positive feelings, you understand, but I'm not necessarily itching to sit down and watch the whole thing again.

Here are my entries on the other Marvel movies... Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America.

And the "non-Marvel" Marvel movies I've caught over the years: the hilariously bad Ghost Rider and Spider-Man 3, and the fourth and fifth entries in the X-Men franchise, Wolverine and X-Men: First Class.